My Vigil [Full Transcript]

JRR Kinsey, who oversees the Blood’s Call: Online Journal & Podcast and who interviewed me recently [link to interview ➤], asked me to contribute an audio piece to an artists’ web site produced by Ming Studios [link to site ➤]. I’m adding the full transcript here.

It has been an intense summer of vigilance: friends and family in Gaza; in Lebanon; displaced from Syria….along with the day-to-day of news concerning the current state of the world. This audiocast starts with a wheatpasted poster I saw seeking support for an Indigenous girl being rehomed. The notion of genocidal settler-colonial displacement ties this violence to the recent discoveries at the residential schools here, as well as the continued destruction of Gaza, Palestine, and Lebanon.

My hope for the piece is to tie this cataclysmic violence together as sourcing from similar systemic oppression, to point to the resolute vigilance it requires of us to face it, as well as to point out the waste of energy that is screaming into the void concerning such issues. These are not isolated incidents, but wholly connected and linked one to the other; their unlinking is equally tactical.

Collaborating with me on this piece are Amany Es-Sayyed [link to her Instagram ➤] in Beirut, as well as Ziad Sader in Nabatieh South [link to his Spotify ➤]. I am grateful for their gracious cooperation as well as their inspiring spirit.

You can listen to the podcast via this web page:

* * *

[musical intro: 3am bidawwir]

Last week I traveled across Surrey to reach the Guildford Recreation Center where hundreds of people were receiving their second dose of vaccine over a year into a preventable epidemic. On the way back, while waiting under the overpass that serves as a bus stop next to the shopping mall that serves as a city center, I noticed a wheatpaste flyer attached to the concrete pillar next to me. It read: “Justice for Georgia! Stop Stealing Indigenous Children!” and “National Day of Solidarity to End the Millennial Scoop” and “Georgia is five years old and is about to be moved to her fifteenth foster home”. This formalized version of much more sinister genocidal precursors continues apace.

Perhaps you have heard the news, that the land now heaves up those it can no longer hold quietly; the earth demands witness to what it cannot quiescently hide away; the ground opens up and reveals the graves of those murdered in the residential schools, endless unmarked graves, endless remains, endless Unknowns. These children are precursive to the Butterbox Babies, and the children of Tuam, and the children of the foundling hospitals and of the Orphan Trains, as well as the ensuing scooped, and adopted, and fostered, and trafficked, all of those deemed Other, slated for destruction, extirpated under the loathsome pretense of beneficence and of charity.

In feeble reply and feigned shock from this psychopathic country I find myself in come the excuses and the reasonings and the defensive postures. “That’s not us” I hear stated out loud, or: “it wasn’t genocide, strictly speaking” I read in the op-ed article—as if there are levels and nuance to such atrocities. My reply is quite emotionless: “This is exactly what this nation-enterprise was designed to do. To be shocked is to believe in a moral basis to the current system we live under; it is to suggest that this is an aberration and not the norm.” The wheatpasted flyer is but one tear in a bucket. They join the posters seeking missing Indigenous women here, the billboards in Georgia and other places doing the same, the milk cartons I grew up with featuring missing children, all fading into a banal continuum of crime on top of crime.

The murderous zeal of settler colonialism remains unslaked; and its barbarous foundations reveal themselves. I entitle this treatise “My Vigil”. Vigil as in vigilant; vigil as in the constant mode of maintaining, of keeping composure. “Vigil”, in this light, should not be confused with the weariness felt in the face of the unsustainable affect, pretense, and fronting of those appealing to the Butchers; nor should “vigil” be seen as a passive non-response in light of the quibbling, of the denial, of the hairsplitting as put forth by the Murderers themselves. My vigil may be in their presence, but they are not my audience. Assata Shakur said: “Nobody in history has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them”.

The appeal must pass beyond them to those they deem invalid. To reject are their veiled euphemisms and epithets. “Resilient”, for one example, is a word used by those who are surprised that we are still present. I speak over their heads and beyond their means of understanding. Malcolm X said: “We are working on our own people”. For there is no resilience, there is only survival. I need not make the case, for one small example, that my orphanage was a site of euthanasia, to put it mildly. I have researched; I have witnessed; I have the evidence. I do not wish what I know on my worst enemy, who, let it be known, would not be able to remain sane if confronted with this reality. The burden of proof, quite on the contrary, is on those who refuse to face up to it.

[musical segue]

An excerpt from a fledgling adoption memoir, I am currently working on, describing my orphanage:

On the other side of the same room stands a row of file cabinets, and within are arranged the procedural by-products, the filed folders of children now departed, their dossiers crammed with letters in airmail envelopes, with pediatrician’s notes and vaccination dates, with wishes and blessings; files stuffed with missives and thank-you offerings and pictures showing these children’s countenances bereft of smiles, posed out of context among estranging groups and bright beaming faces; these Children of Lebanon now a distant diaspora, the photographs sent by proud parents and haphazardly crafted families full of hope and promise and new beginnings filling up steel cabinets tidily filing away the myriad lives of those given Egress, Conveyance; an Exodus. ¶ And these gunmetal-grey cabinets contain other stories, other dossiers, annotated ledgers, children who came back, who were sent back, perhaps too sick, or perhaps not wanted after all, returned, and here superscripted in red above a majority of the entries found amongst them: “deceased soon thereafter”, and here, “child succumbed to illness”—vile and passive euphemisms revealing an insufferable double rejection, an abjectly suicided reaction. And here, more yet still, in a fit of unexpected criminal admission: children refused treatment at nearby hospitals during the civil war, doctors seeing “no point”.

What is so easily written is so much more easily done. We weren’t “saved” by the orphanage. We survived it.

[musical segue]

I sent a text to a dear friend at the end of Eid wishing him a blessed Ramadan. He replied: “I’m in Gaza”. I had known for a while he was planning this journey, a journey to visit his family not seen for 10 long years. I did not know he had left, and now the endless destruction of Gaza took on additional proportion. In such a situation, words fall flat. There are no words for the Palestinian, no words for the Indigenous of Turtle Island and their Southern counterparts in the so-called New World. James Baldwin, after the murder of Emmett Till said: “What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now, is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness.” And yet, with all respect due and apologies to Baldwin, his reference to madness implies a humanity to appeal to.

This is the mistake we make when we imagine ourselves to be part of something premised on our bodily exclusion. Moving forward means revoking such fallacies, rescinding energy spent appealing to be seen, to be heard, to be viewed as human to begin with. During the Day of Return in May, 2011, when 70,000 Palestinians and supporters marched to the border of Palestine to demonstrate for an end to occupation and exile, we witnessed the sniper murder of 12 young men. There were smoke screens, and then snipers arrived in position, and then echoed the popping noise of their rifles, and then unfolded the determined shepherding up the hill of lives laid low.

It was 1987 after the First Intifada started. I was in a New York City coffeeshop. The words I overheard stung and burned and never left me. I wrote down my thoughts in a sketchbook; I revived them in something I wrote after the above massacre.

Words from the First Intifada. An excerpt:

“Let them rot!” you said, your vague pronoun spat out; “let them starve in the desert!” you said, the fact that “they” exist apparently crime enough, the fact that “they” resist seemingly criminal enough for your judgment, your sentence, your execution; and thus you complete your discrete logic: the annihilation of those who, to you, never were; a double negative that sums up your false positive. And so is unleashed your displacement, your dispossession, your theft, your will to kill, and you, come unhinged. Of all people. And so fly unfettered your noisome epithets, so are built your ghettos, so rains down your destruction, so is revealed your murderous zeal. You, of all people.

You slammed your coffee down and spat out said menace, and I stopped, and I turned, and I caught your eye. I thought: What is so easily said is much more easily done. “Let them starve in the desert! Let them rot in the sun! Let them riot in Gaza!” you said, and our eyes met, and I saw you, and I saw you seeing me, and I completed your thought, computed your equation; I arrived at your horrid calculus, infinitely revealed in your possessing, and usurping, and stealing, as well as in your means and ways and methods. And you coldly enacted your endeavor, and you plotted your task, with a bureaucrat’s precision, a mild surprise only that you stop not to collect the shoes, nor the watches, nor the spectacles, while you seem to so value the skin, and the bones, and the eyes. You, of all people.

[musical segue]

Watching the endless stream of news about Gaza flashed me back to the July War of 2006, the 33 days of bombardment that destroyed the Southern Suburbs of Beirut, the infrastructure of Lebanon, as well as towns in the South. It was July 14, 15 years ago, that I wrote the following:

Excerpts from a diary kept during the July War in 2006:

I woke and could hear the sound of the muedhdhin calling the faithful to prayer, a rhythmic, cadenced call that I find comforting in its daily reminder of one’s humble status, of one’s humanity, of one’s community, to all points compass-wise called out.

And then another sound, of low-flying jets, a roar and a sonic boom that shook the building; and then another sound, an explosion, to the south; I ran to the balcony door, and the neighbors did the same, and lights came on and people stared out into the dark sky now reflecting light from a bomb blast just south in the dahiyeh.

And my sister called, which amazed me in terms of phone service here; and I kept her on the phone to keep her voice close, the sound of her voice comfort in the dark only I wish she hadn’t heard the bombs drop; I wish she didn’t have to hear the sonic booms ricocheting off the walls and through my head; the pause in our conversation endless as outside the noise screamed and pounded and boomed and silent pink lights rose to meet no target and yellow-orange flames reflected off of the smoke of their own creation.

And my parents called, and I prayed that my mother might be spared the sound of the night before, straining my ears for sounds of jets, ready to hang up if necessary to prevent such a transmission; sounds no mother should hear, especially when that noise is directly delivered to other mothers, that noise and the bomb it delivered that mowed down eight children of a mother’s work yesterday in one fatal moment, that noise that haunts mothers’ nightmares throughout this country, that piercing scream of death come quickly.

And then silence. As after a nightmare, the rising sun serves to vanquish evil; a dark plume of smoke rose heavy in the southern sky, accompanied by not a sound, not a siren, not a cry, not a car, not a voice, nothing, no one. So silent, that one might try to sleep, exhausted, as if hearing and seeing, in and of themselves, were fatiguing activities.

[musical segue]

My friend and his family left their residential tower, knowing that buildings full of civilians are a favorite target, and they moved in with his sister’s family. I sat vigil every night, watching the Arab news channels, waiting for word, steeling myself to the growing body count. His building, fortunately this time, was not one of the databased targets; however the bookstore next door, a lifetime of one man’s work, a center of culture and community in Gaza, was. To note is that the destruction and erasure of language, memory, history, and culture is a colonizer’s prime directive.

To further note is that whether such violence comes in the instantaneous form of bombs dropped from US-supplied warplanes, or whether it comes in the slow-motion forms of poverty, of attrition, of sanction, of embargo, of willful deprivation of food, shelter, and medical care; of defining nine-tenths of the global population as “excess”—this violence is the norm. We are not witnessing global crises; we have simply lost our ability to sequester ourselves away from what the world lives day to day.

The line dividing those seen as economically and politically embodied and those not remains as stark now as when Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin in 1875 said: “We instill in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin. When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood”. The word “except” here is the giveaway; the criminal admission.

“Except their blood” implies that the atrocious task is not complete; that a facade of outward alteration has been accomplished, but that the taint of blood remains, that the genocidal intent has not been achieved; that the extirpation has not been brought to literal fruition. Fruition: from the Old French fruition and directly from Late Latin fruitionem: the “act of enjoying,” a pleasurable attainment.

It is no accident that Canada’s federally mandated term for non-Anglos is: “visible minority”. It is no accident that such minorities provide great entertainment in sanctioned and subsidized minstrelsies: Kim’s Convenience, ethnic food festivals, endless aesthetic references to vagaries of identity devoid of context and distanced from source. Frantz Fanon referred to this as “mummified culture”:

“A new system of values is imposed…by the heavy weight of cannons and sabers. Historic observation reveals that the aim sought is rather a continued agony than a total disappearance of the pre-existing culture…which becomes closed, fixed in the colonial status, caught in the yoke of oppression.”

The formalized shuck and jive of an other era allows for existence, provides for survival, but this is not living. Witness too the anti-racism industries, the fashionable theories, the wholesale profiting from this abject condition, the willful avoidance of proposing radical alternatives to this status quo.

The history of resistance local to where I find myself now—whether Indigenous, labor-based, from within the Gadar movement, the farmer, Chinese worker, and other general strikes—is thus negated. Currently we see a plenitude of such sites of resistance: the interruption of pipelines and foresting efforts, the blocking of ports and train tracks, and, hunger strikes in the prisons, among many others. The necessary praxis of surpassing our current dystopia is not a secret; the methods and modes are known; the means to this end are in our hands. As the Palestinians say: “al-wujud muqawamah”; “Existence is Resistance”. Such action becomes the only valid culture, an art of protest and resistance, a desire to break with the continued agony.

It was notable last summer, and every riotous summer before that, the outcry in the face of the destruction of property, especially that which didn’t belong to the peoples and communities it is found among. Kwame Ture said: “The oppressor is only opposed to violence when the oppressed talk of using violence against them”. Above and beyond this hypocrisy we should note the depraved elation of the oppressor when they use comparatively trifling violence as an excuse for their wanton and pre-planned destruction. Quite on the contrary, such an outcry goes wholly missing when lives are involved. Except for their blood.

Some will point out the placement of the faces of children murdered in Gaza on the cover of the New York Times as proof of change. Quoting a dear friend: “In the end, they always admit their crimes”; and I would only add: and thus they delightedly seek out fodder for their dramas of contrition and their crocodile tears. I remember the huge banner that was hung from a downtown overpass in Beirut during the July War. It pictured Condoleezza Rice as “The butcher of the children of the second Qana massacre”. Meanwhile, in the United States, she sits on the board of Dropbox, making her a corporate criminal on top of a war criminal.

Norman Finkelstein, in an interview with Future Television, stated: “Why roll out the red carpet [to George Bush’s cabinet members] less than two years after your whole country was destroyed by them? The Secretary of State said it was the ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East’…that’s the statement of a freak. A human freak would compare the birth of a child with the destruction of a country.” This may go far to explain why the continued existence of these countries is nourished by the destruction of children.

10 minutes before Condy’s so-called ceasefire went into effect after the July War, the capital was intensely bombarded yet again:

August 13, 2006: Day 33 of the July War. An excerpt.

O, Destroyer: I realize that it is only 33 days into your War, and you are upset that a deadline be placed on your Destruction, that a moratorium be declared on your cluster bombs, and implosion bombs, and depleted-uranium bunker busters, and missiles of revenge with little girls’ handwriting on them, fired off by gleeful civilians; I realize that 8:00 a.m. looms large for you and you want that last “bang” for your buck, or should I say America’s bucks, the endless dollars that allow you to wage this war on Lebanon, this neverending American war now dated half a century; and before you argue with me on this point, before you even open your mouth to dispute this, let me just say that it might behoove your soldiers to not wear the Stars and Stripes as bandannas while lazing and waiting in southern-border convoy lines: your bloodied standard is thus raised. And I realize that you know that your summer offensive must soon end, and that your land generals and your sea generals and your air generals all want in on the game but honestly, when your devils, sick of sin, have come up with something resembling the nightmare’s end, how can you brazenly ignore your United Nations that feigns asking that you “respect” at least, at the very least, the spirit of this latest of a hundred or so resolutions that name you explicitly? Must you nonetheless continue to lay waste to Sour, to the Beqaa, to the South? Must a 20-count of mega-ton bombs fall on the southern suburbs within the space of two minutes? It was indeed twenty; for I counted them, standing in a doorframe, my building asway as a house of cards might, as the very essence of time seemed stopped….

[musical segue]

The murderers remain unpunished; they pass away in peace while the world burns and the Earth vomits up their crimes. In the above interview Norman Finkelstein quotes Dolores Ibárruri Gomez, also known as “La Pasionaria” who, during the Spanish Civil War, said: “Antes morir de pie que vivir de rodillas”—“Better to die on our feet than to live on our knees!” Her words spoke of a lived and ever-present vigilance in the face of those who not only wish us gone, but who have enacted the means for such extermination to take place.

Such vigilant steadfastness and this idea of Vigil is embodied for me in a poem by the Palestinian poet Tawfiq Ziad, from his collection entitled Prisoners of Freedom.

[poem reading in Arabic]

The Disgraceful Case

My old age, yet no mercy from you;
Me, agèd, and you: merciless regarding my tears.
You transformed our countries into cemeteries,
Your masterpiece remains your methodical butchery—
You plant bullets in our heads, sir.
Where are our leaders, my fellow Arabs?
This shall not pass unaccounted for.
All you have done to our People
Is registered in notebooks,
[Testament to] the Day of Reckoning.
Beware, hence, your woeful recompense,
When the downtrodden and oppressors receive their due:
Injustices attested by They who spare no vagueness, sir.
Before you, sir, my merest teardrop.

[musical segue]

I started writing this on so-called Canada Day, a few days before the celebration of the coup d’état that established American Empire on Turtle Island. I offer up this statement of acknowledgment, advocacy, and activation:

I live uninvited on Kwantlen land; I work uninvited on the Indigenous territories of the Musqueam, Sqohomish, and Tsleil-Waututh bands. This is an entreaty to shift our focus to the active and ongoing displacement, dispossession, and disinheritance that remain functional aspects of dominant systems and structures.

I am completing work on this piece on the day commemorating the anniversary of Algeria throwing off its French colonial yoke. I conclude here with the end of my land acknowledgment:

Notions of reconciliation, though palliative, do not equate to justice. May the comprehension of this statement lead to revived ideals of indemnification; of atonement; of reclamation; of re-inheritance. I vow to actively work toward restitution and repossession, not reconciliation nor any similar deception from within the dominant structures and systems of occupation and oppression.

Vandana Shiva said: “The [Cartesian] illusion of being separate from the earth was the justification for separating people from the land.” For those of us similarly displaced, dispossessed, disinherited, or else migrated, exiled, or otherwise transited against our will, we have a duty to reconnect, re-establish, and re-source. Ghassan Kanafani said: “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever they may find themselves, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses of our era.” This is as true today as it was when he voiced it decades ago. And thus the call to remain vigilant, to activate, and to always recall these words to live by: Al-wujud muqawameh: Existence is Resistance.

[musical outro: 3am bidawwir]

* * *

I would like to express my thanks to those collaborating with me on this piece. I am exceedingly grateful to my dear friend and colleague, Amany Al-Sayyed in Beirut for her help with translation as well as her reading of Tawfiq Ziad’s poem. Amany currently works as a writer, researcher, and language arts instructor; I miss our discussions and debates.

The music for this piece was graciously provided by Ziad Sader in Nabatieh South. Ziad is a former student, artist, musician as well as great inspiration to me. The duo he was part of for this music is called Kameh, here featuring Al-Jazzar. The name of the song is ‘am badawwir, “I am seeking…”, and the mix is by Osloob, formerly of the Palestinian rap group Katibeh 5. Finally, thank you for lending an ear to this audiocast, I appreciate your time and attention.

For further reading from any of the cited sources, feel free to browse my office library at university and/or do a search on a particular Voice’s name. If you are in the Emily Carr University community, these books are available for borrowing.

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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